ROME, 1 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: Recently I received a baptized Christian into the Catholic Church
during a Mass in which the person received holy Communion. The RCIA
ritual encourages the candidate to go to confession before the Mass and
Communion, and this was done. However, since the confession was made
before the candidate was actually in the Catholic Church, how could it
have been a valid Catholic sacrament? Or does the absolution take effect
only when the person is received into the Church? I cannot fit this
event into my traditional understanding of Catholic sacraments.
D.J., Buffalo, New York
A: We briefly addressed this question in a follow-up on April 27, 2004,
in which we said:
"A catechist from Michigan asked if candidates in the RCIA may receive
the sacrament of penance before they have been formally initiated into
"In this case we are dealing with Christians validly baptized but who
have not yet made their solemn entrance into the Catholic Church nor
received the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.
"This case is already foreseen in the appendix to the Introduction to
the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults.
"Norm No. 9 stipulates that if the candidate is to admitted to the
Catholic Church during Mass (the usual practice), then beforehand, the
candidate, having considered his personal condition, confesses his past
sins after having informed the priest of his proximate admission.
"Any priest with faculties for hearing confessions may receive this
"Thus, not only may the future Catholic make his confession before being
formally received but in general he or she should do so."
Thus there is no question regarding the canonical legitimacy of the
practice described. Yet, this does not answer the theological
difficulties experienced by our reader.
Perhaps an answer could be found by making a distinction between
impediments to the valid reception of a sacrament stemming from divine
law and those stemming from Church law.
From the point of view of divine law, baptism is absolutely necessary
before receiving any other sacrament. Once baptism has been received,
however, the person has at least the root possibility of receiving some
of the other sacraments even though other impediments might exist.
A person baptized as a Protestant (Eastern Christians are in a very
different position) is usually impeded from receiving the sacraments of
confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing and holy orders due to their
lack of communion with the Catholic Church.
The Church usually recognizes the sacramental quality of any valid
marriage between a baptized man and woman.
Since most of the impediments to valid reception of these sacraments by
non-Catholic Christians are rooted in Church law, not divine law, the
Church itself may decide under what conditions a person not within her
fold may receive the comfort of some of her sacraments and thus lift the
impediment to invalidity.
Such conditions are set out, for example, in the Ecumenical Directory,
and usually require grave conditions such as danger of death, the
spontaneous request of the person desiring the sacrament, and faith in
the Catholic understanding of the sacrament by the person requesting it.
In the case of the person who is about to be received into full
communion, the Church creates, so to speak, an automatic exception which
makes the sacrament of reconciliation both valid and licit for the
Although this answer may be a trifle speculative, I hope it is
sufficient to clear up the difficulties. ZE05110102
Follow-up: Confession for RCIA Candidates [11-15-2005]
In the Nov. 1 column on confession for Protestant candidates who were
about to enter the Catholic Church, I mentioned that "Eastern Christians
were treated differently."
A Minneapolis reader asked: "What is this 'very different position' of
the Eastern Christians? Should they or should they not receive the
sacrament of penance before they are publicly received into the Catholic
Eastern Christians share the same sacramental practice and faith as
Catholics, even though they are not in full communion.
Because of this, the Catholic Church permits them to receive the
sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist and anointing of the sick for
any just cause when one of their own priests is unavailable. Likewise, a
Catholic may receive these sacraments from an Eastern Christian for a
For example, Catholics who work or vacation in a predominately Orthodox
country where a Catholic Mass is unavailable, may freely attend and
receive Communion at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy although they would not
be obliged to do so.
The Church asks Catholics in such situations to respect the requirements
of the local Church regarding such things as fasting before Communion.
It is important to note that not all Eastern Churches have the same law
as the Catholic Church on this matter. Some do not allow their faithful
to receive the sacraments in other Churches, nor do they offer this
possibility to others. Once more, we need to be attentive to different
A priest writing from Hong Kong asked: "What about for those Protestant
denominations whose baptism is doubtful (because of the form, etc.), and
the candidate receives conditional baptism? Should they also go to
confession before the conditional baptism?"
If conditional baptism is foreseen, the confession should be postponed
until a suitable time after the celebration, since certainty is required
in questions regarding the validity of the sacraments.
Of course, confession is not necessary immediately after baptism, as
this latter sacrament removes all sins. In the case of a conditional
baptism, however, it probably does much good to the spiritual health of
the new Catholic to avail of the opportunity of confession as soon as
Finally, a reader from Ontario asked about marriage: "I just read your
response to the question about the validity of the sacrament of penance
for a baptized non-Catholic person before being received into the
Church. Now this has made me wonder about the validity of my marriage as
a sacrament. I went through the RCIA program and was baptized. Since I
was civilly married to a Catholic, I was required to get married in the
Church before my baptism. My question is: Since I was not baptized at
the time of the marriage ceremony, is my marriage a sacramental
Here the question is rather complex, but I will try to put it into a
As our reader was only civilly married to a Catholic, her husband was in
an irregular situation with respect to the Church, which does not
recognize the validity of such marriages.
Her subsequent marriage to him would have been made with a dispensation,
which transformed her relationship into a valid, but not yet
sacramental, spousal bond.
The moment she received baptism, her valid marriage was elevated to a
sacramental union by the very grace of her new state as a member of
Christ's Mystical Body.
This is in conformity with long-standing practice in the Church. For
example, when spouses joined in a valid natural marriage are baptized
together, they are not usually required to go through another marriage
ceremony, as their natural marriage is elevated to a sacramental bond by
the very fact of receiving baptism. ZE05111522
Since one or two questions arose from our follow-up on confession and
Christian initiation (see Nov. 1 and 15) I wish to address the topic one
One reader posed a theological teaser to our statement that "If
conditional baptism is foreseen, the confession should be postponed
until a suitable time after the celebration, since certainty is required
in questions regarding the validity of the sacraments."
He asked: "However, if the conditional baptism is administered at the
Easter Vigil [as is often the case], it will immediately be followed by
confirmation and first Communion. It would seem that the candidate
should receive a conditional absolution before receiving these
Our reader has a valid point, but I do not think that such a practice is
appropriate. Although hearing confessions is allowed during Mass, there
is a general law that the sacrament of penance is never combined with
the celebration of Mass in such a way that it forms part of the rite
Cases of conditional baptism are relatively rare, and the doubt
regarding the previous "baptism" is usually well founded. There is
almost nothing regarding this precise theme in theological manuals. Yet
I think that the conditional baptism, either because it is the first
true baptism, or in virtue of the Church's intention if the person was
already validly baptized, will have the effect of placing the person in
the state of grace and able to fruitfully receive the sacraments of
confirmation and Eucharist.
We could consider it as somewhat analogous to a person who returns to
the state of grace though an act of perfect contrition. In normal
circumstances this is still insufficient to accede to the sacraments
until after receiving sacramental absolution. In certain extraordinary
circumstances, however, a person may receive some sacraments before
confession if there is no possible alternative and confess later at the
A Houston reader requested clarification regarding confessing a member
of the Eastern Churches: "With respect to confessions of the Eastern
Orthodox, can the priest absolve them for the sin of schism if the
priest is not receiving the penitent into the Catholic Church? Does it
matter whether the individual was baptized by an Orthodox priest or is a
Catholic who has left the Catholic Church for an Orthodox Church? There
are many Catholics who leave the Catholic Church for Orthodox Churches,
and I am curious to know whether they can receive absolution from a
Catholic priest while remaining Orthodox."
We need to consider several points. Sin always involves a personal
choice made with full deliberation and knowledge. For this reason it is
not reasonable to say that a person who was born and raised in an
Eastern Church is personally guilty of the sin of schism.
This is one probable reason why the Church makes no mention of this
aspect when granting permission for a Catholic priest to administer the
sacraments to them.
The case of a Catholic who has left the Church is in a different
position and, except in cases of danger of death, would normally have to
be reconciled with the Church before receiving absolution.
For the sake of precision, we would be dealing with a Catholic who has
abandoned the Catholic Church, thus breaking communion with the Pope and
bishops, and not that of a Latin-rite Catholic who switches rites to one
of the Eastern Catholic Churches. ZE05112920